Markon’s annual Chef Summit turns it up a notch, inspiring culinary students at Rancho Cielo.
When Chris Casson first came up with the Chef Summit concept in 2015, he had no idea it would blossom into the highly anticipated event it is today. The former chef and restaurateur, who’s now Shamrock Foods Company’s Vice President of Sales for Produce and Specialty Foods, wanted to give other culinary artists an authentic farm-to-table experience with tours of produce fields in Salinas, California.
He collaborated with Markon to offer intimate groups of chefs a two-day experience of a lifetime, which included observing the harvesting and packing process, gaining knowledge about sustainability, food safety and water conservation efforts, and connecting directly with growers. The chefs’ feedback is also invaluable for growers as it helps with their product development, says Casson.
“The growers are excited because they finally get to connect with someone who is truly in the trenches,” explains Casson. “They’re getting one-on-one consultations with the chefs who are the true customers and connecting with diners.” The chefs are comprised of customers as well as corporate chefs from Markon’s five member distributors, Ben E. Keith Foods, Gordon Food Service, Gordon Food Service Canada, Nicholas & Company, and Shamrock Foods.
“As a chef, I never knew how produce got to my kitchen,” says Casson. “When you tour the fields, you actually get to see what goes into it. You witness firsthand how labor intensive the work is, and it definitely gives chefs and restaurant owners a totally different perspective. Sometimes products are not always at their best and they don’t last as long. They see how weather impacts it.”
Two years after its inception, the Chef Summit evolved to help aspiring foodservice professionals, which embraces Markon’s pillar of “innovation through community.” Organizers connected with Rancho Cielo Drummond Culinary Academy, an alternative school in Salinas for at-risk students ages 16 to 24. During the summit, chefs serve as role models and mentors, encouraging the students to pursue their dreams of a career in the food and beverage industry.
“Over the years I’ve met so many different kids, and I love seeing their eyes open up when they meet all these chefs and get to work side by side with them,” says Casson. “You can tell that it really makes a difference.”
Initially, students’ involvement consisted of assisting chefs during cooking competitions among the chefs. But this year’s event, which took place in September, challenged students with more responsibility. A benefit dinner also encouraged them to express their creativity. Each of the 17 visiting chefs was paired with two students to prepare a course made with products from sponsors Gills Onions, Sugar Foods, The Mushroom Council, Pete’s, Misionero, and Taylor Farms, among others. Highlights of the menu ranged from trumpet-shiitake mushroom “scallops” to dry-aged New York strip steak served over golden potato and sunchoke puree with a braised short rib croquette, caramelized fennel, and arugula gremolata. Dessert consisted of grilled peaches and berries topped with a bourbon-aged maple glaze, whipped mascarpone, roasted almonds, and red quinoa streusel.
More than $11,000 was raised with 100% of the proceeds benefiting Rancho Cielo; guests paid $175 for five courses paired with wine. Held at the school, the event also included live jazz, a local florist incorporating produce in all the centerpieces, and appetizers on Rancho Cielo’s beautiful patio overlooking the Salinas hilltops.
“The guests were very impressed, as it might have been more than they were expecting,” says Casson. “Tickets for this event sold out in three days.”
The program is something Laura Nicola looks forward to each year because it brings so much joy, confidence, and optimism to the student body. The $11,000 donation from the event will go towards students’ scholarships as well as upkeep for the school.
“The opportunity for our students to meet real-life chefs from all over the country is truly a priceless experience for them,” says Nicola, who serves as Rancho Cielo’s event coordinator. “Most of them have not seen a realistic pathway to success, so when they meet chefs, I think it’s really an inspiring moment for them.
“For them to have successful adults believe in them is a hugely transformative thing for our students. It’s really quite amazing to see the evolution in a student when they realize the community believes in them, that these chefs believe in them, that we believe in them. It’s really powerful.”
She also credits the students’ enthusiasm and burgeoning skill set to Estevan Jimenez, executive chef at Rancho Cielo, who works with them year-round on the 10-month culinary program.
“It’s a demographic of students that might not be easy to work with, and Chef EJ is so patient,” says Nicola. “He has found a way to connect with them on their level. He’s laid back, yet authoritative, and they really respect him. He’s been a great asset to Rancho Cielo.”
An industry veteran who’s worked in foodservice for almost 25 years, Jimenez believes the Chef Summit is “a great hook” to keep students motivated throughout the school year. It also offers students the opportunity to see the industry from various perspectives.
“They get to see chefs who have a lot of different ideas and techniques, which is a really good eye opener for them,” he says. “After the Chef Summit, they come back to school more adventurous. They begin to understand that foodservice is more than just being a really cool chef. There’s also this whole flow in there of distribution and seeing all these cool products come in and knowing they have to get from a field to here somehow.”
Rancho Cielo also features an on-site restaurant that’s open to the public every Friday during the school year. Students cook all the dishes, under the supervision of Jimenez, with produce provided by the school’s expansive, on-premise garden as well as donations from the likes of Markon.
“I want to teach them how to cook and how to use their brains,” explains Jimenez, “and how to use their palates and how to develop instincts and rely on their experiences to push their careers forward.”
Producing such an event that impacts the next generation of foodservice leaders consists of a lot of moving parts. The collaborative efforts between Markon, its member distributors, suppliers, and the Salinas community aim to make the Chef Summit an annual event everyone will look forward to for years to come.
“We truly appreciate our relationships with the grower/shipper community and Markon,” asserts Chris Casson of Shamrock. “We couldn’t do this without them. We are planning the 2022 Chef Summit now and hope to make it bigger and better. But it’s not just about the event and cooking part. It’s also about that connection to the grower-shipper, and I think that a big part of it in the future is how we will get them more of that face time so that it’s always insightful and valuable for the chefs.”
By Audarshia Townsend